The public may be forgiven for its skepticism. Cuomo is the third “reform” secretary in the past 10 years, after Jack Kemp and Henry G. Cisneros. But HUD retains its reputation as a mess that needs cleaning up. That reputation remains largely because concern about HUD is not so much about its current performance as about its core purpose. That is, do we need HUD at all? There is good reason to think not. The assumptions that prompted its establishment in 1965 have largely been discredited, and it has undertaken new missions of questionable value.
HUD was created in an era when Americans were concerned about the decline of older neighborhoods in the newly designated “inner city.” Its founders believed that without massive public spending to renovate older housing, those neighborhoods would forever remain slums and their residents “disadvantaged.”
But HUD’s designers discounted the possibility that the new poor in the cities, particularly blacks, could follow the path of upward mobility that previous waves of immigrants had taken. In the ensuing three decades, however (as Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom have made clear in their new book, “America in Black and White”), black Americans have made their own march to better neighborhoods and the suburbs. And HUD’s expensive interventions in older, increasingly depopulated neighborhoods — from the Model Cities program of the 1960s to today’s Empowerment Zones — have done little good. In fact, there is reason to believe they have done harm.